In the 1990s, when his lobbyist job had him crisscrossing Pennsylvania by plane and train, Bill Cologie took solace in a newsstand in the Pittsburgh airport that stocked a single shelf of classic literature.
“It was an island of sanity in the insanity that is business travel,” Cologie said on a recent weekday morning, as he unloaded flats of bottled water from his Honda to the Transit News bookstore in the Harrisburg train station.
Since Cologie bought Transit News in 1991, he’s worked to make his own spot of respite for weary business travelers. But as he eyes retirement, he’s taken up a new venture—mobilizing against a PennDOT proposal that could force his thriving business out of its current location.
In March, PennDOT published plans for overhauling the Harrisburg Transportation Center, home to the city’s train station and long-haul bus terminals. The $15 million proposal calls for the addition of a café, restaurant and seating in the station’s main concourse, a new entry plaza from Market Street and the relocation of office space from the first to second floor.
Transit News, which occupies a snug corner of the station’s main lobby, is nowhere to be found in the plans. The proposal calls for relocating all retail to three kiosks in the station’s main concourse and for replacing Transit News with Amtrak’s offices and police station.
According to Cologie, PennDOT officials explained that the Amtrak offices must be relocated to accommodate a renovation to the station’s restrooms, which are not ADA-compliant. While Cologie supports that renovation, he rejects Amtrak’s claim to his shop’s highly visible location.
Transit News serves as many as 10,000 customers a month, Cologie says, peddling snacks, drinks, toiletries, newspapers and magazines that bring in more than $500,000 in annual revenue. The store also boasts a small but well-curated selection of books, which Cologie takes pleasure in choosing himself.
Cologie argues that his shop benefits Amtrak’s own business—which is part of the reason he resents being overlooked in the PennDOT proposal.
“We bust our butts to serve the traveling public to make sure riders have a good experience,” Cologie said. “Ridership on Amtrak is essential to our success. We want to enhance the experience as much as we can.”
Cologie said that he was not included in any of the stakeholder meetings during the development of the plans. When he wrote to PennDOT officials about his potential displacement in April, their response largely overlooked his concerns, he said.
PennDOT told TheBurg on Friday that it planned to continue with the project design, including the reallocation of the Transit News space to Amtrak.
“We encourage local business owners such as Mr. Cologie to take advantage of the [retail] opportunities that would become available at the project’s completion,” said Erin Waters-Trassat, PennDOT press secretary.
In a May letter, PennDOT urged Cologie to set his sights on the three kiosks that will occupy the station’s main concourse. Cologie called those a “dying proposition.” With newspaper and magazine plummeting, he’s doubtful that they could sustain a single kiosk, as the PennDOT plans suggest.
He also argued that kiosks would triple personnel costs for his business. Cologie staffs Transit News with one employee at a time, but each of the three kiosks would require its own staff person.
Cologie doubts he would be able to pay his employees their minimum $10 an hour wage while keeping prices low for consumers.
There’s no guarantee that PennDOT would select Cologie as the tenant at the kiosks. But if they did, he fears, “It would be the end of reasonable pricing for our customers.” It would also constrain the store’s $54,000 worth of inventory.
PennDOT did offer Cologie a vacant space above the bus garage on the northwest side of the building. But Cologie said that the services he provides merit a location closer to the main concourse and questioned why Amtrak needs such a visible location for its training center and security offices.
“I’ve been to the Amtrak police office once during 26 years of business here,” Cologie said. “There’s no need for a place that’s accessible to the public.”
He believes that there is ample office space in the station’s second story to accommodate Amtrak.
Cologie plans to write to lawmakers whose districts border the Keystone train route, which connects Harrisburg to Philadelphia and its suburbs. He also plans to appeal to customers for support. He began distributing fliers in his shop this week with instructions for contacting PennDOT project managers.
“If you would like to see Transit News survive in its current form, then you too are a stakeholder in this project and your comments and concerns should be heard,” the flier reads. “If you are familiar with the wide range of products we offer to meet the needs of travelers, you know this business can’t be conducted from a kiosk, or even three kiosks.”
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse supports Cologie’s right to remain in his current retail space.
“He’s a great tenant, and his lease is valid through 2022,” Papenfuse said. “There are no definitive pans for remodeling the train station yet, [but] we wouldn’t want to see him leave.”
Business traveler Samantha Dawson agreed. Dawson, who stopped in Transit News before catching a train on a recent Thursday morning, said that the shop “has everything you could want.”
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “It would be a shame if it shut down, it’s quite quaint here.”
Waters-Trassat said that the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority currently manages tenant space at the train station. PennDOT and Amtrak are deciding who will manage the redeveloped station, since that entity will have ultimately decide on tenants in the new retail space.
This article was updated on Friday to include comments from PennDOT.